- Period cramps typically show up just before and through the first few days of your period. What’s usually happening is that the muscles of your uterus contract to shed its lining, and it’s those contractions that can cause cramping.
- To help your uterine muscles relax, try placing a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower abdomen or try taking a warm, soothing bath. Exercise has also been shown to help relieve cramping.
- You can also try over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen. Ibuprofen acts as an anti-inflammatory, which will reduce the number of uterine contractions and relieve the pain. You can start taking it as soon as the pain begins and continue for a few days.
- If you experience severe, debilitating pain every time you get your period, you should see an OB-GYN. The cause could be something more severe like endometriosis or fibroids.
- This article was reviewed by Julia Simon, MD, who is an assistant professor with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UChicago Medicine.
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If you feel pain and achiness in your lower abdomen when that time of the month strikes, you’re certainly not alone. An estimated 50% to 90% of women will complain of painful periods, a condition formally called dysmenorrhea, at some point during their lives.
Luckily, “it decreases with age [after] adolescence. Only about 15% to 20% of these will seek medical care for cramps that are really so severe” that they interfere with school, work, and daily life says Dr. Aparna Sridhar, an OB-GYN and associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at UCLA.
But if you’re one of those who suffer each month, here are some ways to relieve the pain.
How to get rid of period cramps without medication
Period cramps typically show up just before and through the first few days of your period. What’s usually happening is that the muscles of your uterus contract to shed its lining, “usually in response to a hormone-like substance called prostaglandins,” says Sridhar.
In this case, most people can manage it with self-care practices and maybe an over-the-counter medication.
- Heat therapy. To help your uterine muscles relax, try placing a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower abdomen or try taking a warm, soothing bath. A 2018 systematic review in the journal Scientific Reports showed beneficial effects from heat therapy for menstrual pain, though researchers did report that more rigorous future trials are needed.
- Exercise.Exercise releases hormones, called endorphins, which are natural pain killers and may help reduce cramping. Sridhar says that while the “optimal type, duration, and frequency of exercise to relieve symptoms is not known, it is still believed to help with period cramps.” And for one systematic review, researchers report that about 45-60 minutes of exercise, three times weekly may help relieve the pain when that time of month strikes.
- Other techniques. Period pain can come in”all different forms,” says Dr. Leena Nathan, MD, an OB-GYN for UCLA Health. Some women feel an achy or throbbing pain in the lower abdomen, while “others may feel back pain or even upper leg pain.” Which is why a massage, acupressure, herbal remedies, and acupuncture may also help. While the evidence is limited and still insufficient according to researchers, there’s also a minimal risk in giving it a try for yourself. Also, consult with your doctor before trying herbal remedies because some of them may interact with other medications.
Medications that can help get rid of period cramps
Over the counter medications are the common go-to remedy for those experiencing period pain because they are quick-acting, inexpensive, available without a prescription, and easy to dose for most people according to Sridhar. Popular OTC medications include:
- Ibuprofen. “Ibuprofen is usually a good first line of defence,” says Sridhar. Ibuprofen acts as an anti-inflammatory, which means it will reduce the number of uterine contractions and relieve the pain. You can start taking it as soon as the pain begins and continue for a few days.
- Naproxen. This is another common medication that acts similar to ibuprofen and is recommended by doctors for menstrual cramps.
- Acetaminophen. “And acetaminophen is an alternative, particularly for women who cannot tolerate ibuprofen or naproxen,” Sridhar says.
When you should see a doctor about period pain
If the pain is so bad that it’s disrupting your life, and OTCs give you minimal to no relief, it’s time to see a doctor for medical evaluation and treatment. Because something more might be going on than just your uterine muscles contracting.
Sometimes the pain can also be “due to conditions such as endometriosis or fibroids,” says Sridhar. Fibroids are growths inside your uterus that can increase bleeding or pain during your period.
Endometriosis happens when extra tissue grows on the outside of your uterus. Like the tissue that lines the inside of your uterus, this extra tissue breaks down when you menstruate. But it’s shedding and removal can become impaired, which can cause severe pain.
Both conditions can cause severe period pain, but there are ways to manage or treat the pain. However, you usually won’t know if you have either fibroids or endometriosis without a medical evaluation. That’s why it’s important to seek a doctor if you experience severe pain every time you get your period.
If ibuprofen or naproxen doesn’t help with the pain, “we offer hormonal birth control methods as a treatment for menstrual cramps,” says Sridhar. Especially if they have an underlying cause like endometriosis.
She says that while most people don’t need prescription medications, it’s actually fairly common for that smaller percentage who end up seeking medical care for period cramps to get one since they have probably already tried most other approaches at home.